It’s on the way

It wasn't planned, we were never supposed to go to Xian. But it appeared on the way on the map. Trains that headed south from Beijing passed through it anyway, so we decided to make a break at the ancient city, the start of the great Silk Route and home of the Terra Cotta army. We arrived in the pouring rain, which gave all the taxi drivers an excuse to refuse to use the meter and charge us an exorbitant fee.

We stayed in a reasonable hotel, opposite a decent restaurant, 'Dads'. According to the guidebook, a 'Mums' was down the street, but was no more. Instead a new place had opened in our hotel compound challenging 'Dad's' stronghold on western cuisine. Clearly it was the reason for the demise of Mum's, probably not because it served better food, but because it was closer to the hotel. Anyway, we ate at Dads, the food was good and the beer cold.

Clay soldier theme park

terracotta soldiersThe primary reason for visiting Xian is for the Terracotta army. We came, we saw. There are three hangers at the Xian site. We started at the third. Pit Number three it is called. And it is very much a pit. There was not much in it. Most disappointing. A couple of warriors in glass cases and this Englishman we met asked why there were the only warriors in glass whilst everything else was in the open. He suggested these were the only real artifacts found at the site, the rest were made in the factory down the road (there is indeed such a factory churning out 'replica' soldiers in the locality). The whole thing is no more than a scam... And after the first and second hanger I was beginning to agree. What a waste of time. But then we entered the third hanger which we should've entered first, and this was quite a site with all those soldiers lined up in battle formation. Another wonder of the modern tourist world to check off the list, along with the pyramids and Taj Mahal. The Terracotta Army of Xian. Been there, seen that, done that. And I realise that the highlights of any trip are always those that are of least significance in the guidebooks. The things that are not built around the tourist experience. The things that happen on the way.

And then we are fighting our way through the Terracotta shopping theme park that has set itself up outside the gates. Stall upon stall upon stall flogging reproduction warriors of all sizes and description and tourist tat. No doubt if you looked hard enough you would find terracotta soldiers in plastic hemispheres that you shake to get that 'snow' effect. And it is accompanied by the hard sell. Objects thrust under the nose 'looka looka!' 'You come now, very cheap!' 'One dollar five soldier!' 'Thisa beautiful, very olda!' 'OK, how much you give? One dollar, best price.' Yeah yeah yeah. And we leave Xian and the Terracotta enterprise behind.

Xian station

Xian station is heaving with people; the waiting room is overflowing and there is little space for us to sit down. We Find a space by a pillar and are just about to sit down when an official speaks quickly and loudly at us in Chinese. He takes our tickets, studies them then beckons us to follow him. He marches us to the 'soft sleeper waiting room'. first class by another name. Much better. A room full of arm chairs, much more comfortable.

An hour passes before our train is due to leave. An attendant calls us over. Time to sling the packs over our backs and we are marched to the train.

The carriage

Whilst the train carriage from Beijing to Xian was modern, clean and air-conditioned, the carriage on this train to Chengdu is a lot older and dirty. There is a corridor with doorless compartments along its length. Each compartment has six beds, three high on either side. There is no back to the seat that is the bottom bunk, it is consequently rather uncomfortable. The linoleum floor is well worn, superficially clean - the attendant regularly comes round sweeping and mopping it, but it is ingrained with years of dirt and grime. With no air-conditioning, the window opens, and a fan in the ceiling noisily pushes the air around. We put one pack in the rack above the corridor and another beneath the seat. As the train moves we find ourselves at the centre of attention. "Arrr, Yingqua"- England. And a girl who speaks very good English joins us and engages in conversation. Fucia is returning from Xian on business with her father. She is twenty-two and wears a bright yellow sleeveless summer dress with embroidered pictures of animals, that would sit more comfortably on a young child than this young woman. Suddenly the train comes to a violent halt, we are sure there has been an accident, the train has crashed! But through the ensuing commotion it transpires that it performed an emergency stop because someone had walked on the line in front of it. Still, a woman near us is shouting at the carriage conductor. A suitcase on the bunk above her shot forward as the train braked and landed on her head. She is not happy and makes an almighty commotion about it. Everyone else joins in, and it is something we have noticed on several occasions, the Chinese, and women especially, like to have a good row wherever possible and at every opportunity…


The train moves on and we talk to Fucia. She is telling us about how wonderful Chengdu is, what a wonderful province Sichuan is and how great the food is. All my questions to her are replied with a violent shake of the head, an enormous smile and start with "Urrrr Swure..." Like later when I've had a few beers to drink and am more comfortable talking to her about politics. "And what about your government?" I ask. Like many Chinese she tells me how rapidly things are changing and how much for the better. But I have difficulty in really prizing much about politics from her. "The problems of government are so complex, sometimes we don't understand." I'm getting cocky now, no-one else round here speaks English so I ask her about Tianamen square. "Urrr, swure" she starts, 'the students wanted changes and there were changes made by the government". "But what about democracy?" I ask. "Democracy? she says, "What is that?" Democracy is when you have the power to change your government, to vote, to have a say in politics". "Urrr swure, we have that. If we don't like something we can tell the mayor and he will make changes..." And then Song Zhou chinks his bottle against mine, 'cheers' he says and the thread of the conversation with Fucia is broken. My superficial attempt at learning about Chinese politics is over, the appetite whetted but the desire to learn more unfulfilled. And all because of the beer.

Let the boozing commence

The drinking had started early. Song Zhou and his other passenger friends had cracked open a couple of bottles and opened a third, thrusting it into my hand. I was to drink with them. With our phrase book we are slowly making conversation and overcoming the language barrier. Fucia keeps out of this male territory and does little translation. We are buddies in the beer making idle small talk with a phrase book and a few words we know in each other’s language. When we exhaust these the uncomfortable silence is broken by someone saying 'cheers'. 'Ganbei' in Chinese. And in German and Irish and now we are counting to three in all the languages we know.

'What is your occupation?' I ask Song Zhou. He is a part time footballer. And adds with a smile, pointing to his chest "beck-ham." I cannot find the word 'position' in the phrasebook dictionary so I draw out a picture of a football pitch in my notepad. I then place dots for the players. "Arrr," he exclaimed, "three, five, two" shook his head then took the pad from me. On the opposing side he placed the dots in his formation, nodding and saying "four four two." He pointed to his position, left midfield and asked me where I'd play. Left fullback I showed him. His friend then took the notepad and scribbled a dot where he would play. On the touchline. "Fan" he said pointing to himself to laughter all round. Talk of football continued between swigs from the bottles.

The world cup is keenly followed here, although the Chinese team does not seem to be held in much esteem. Everybody knows 'Beck-ham,' and they laughed about Argentina. Giving a kick with the back of his foot, Song Zhou imitated the incident that saw Beckham sent off against Argentina in the last world cup. and then kissed his shirt imitating when he scored against Argentina. Vengeance is sweet! The importance of that goal was not lost on our Chinese friends.

Up Yours

England are playing tomorrow, against Nigeria. "What time?" I ask them. Song Zhou sticks two fingers up at me. Two O-clock. Just to make sure he, gave me the back of two fingers again and I couldn't help myself by letting him know that he had just made a cultural faux pas to an Englishman. I tut tutted to him, showing him the two fingers, shaking my head and said 'Yingquai, huai' - England, bad. I then remembered in the phrase book the page about bad Mandarin, swearing. I thumbed through the book, and on finding the page I looked left and right to emphasise that no-one should see this. 'Shhhh' I said and pointed my finger to the words 'cao ni.' He burst out laughing. And told his friend with the two fingers. 'cao ni' fuck you!! Much merriment. And then the beers were finished. My round!!

My round

I walked to the restaurant car with Song Zhou following. Using the Chinese numerical sign language (they count to ten using one hand) I requested six beers. They were presented to me and as I reached into my pocket to retrieve some cash Song Zhou was already paying the man. No, no, no I exclaimed, I pay for this one. He garbled at me in Chinese shaking his head and ensured the waiter took his cash not mine. And we row and raise voices at each other but to no avail. He won't let me pay.

What the guidebook says

'It is considered polite in China to offer to pay the bill once or even twice, even if you are clearly the guest. Protests may be made loudly to show sincerity, even when it's a bluff'. Well if Song Zhou was bluffing he did a bloody good job of it, coz he ended up paying for the amber nectar; in his culture 'I'll get this round' clearly doesn't figure. Now imagine back down the local pub....

Unhappy Wife

Back at the compartment I was in trouble. Lindsey was not happy with my boozing. Which amused my drinking partners. They pulled glum faces imitating Lindsey and laughed, clearly priding themselves on their not being married. Fucia then joined in, 'please Marc, don't drink too much'. But it was such weak beer I was always in control.

Lindsey is reasonably happy on the train. As it left Xian I asked her if she feels threatened by the men. 'No,' she replies, 'they all look like wimps!' and traveling on these trains certainly seems easier than on those in India. Once you have got past the language difficulties, stress in buying the tickets (or pain in shelling out for commission, getting others to do this for you) and the occasional spitting on the floor by your fellow passengers, life on the train is reasonably comfortable. Unless you have the top bunk. I found impossible to sleep up there, the air thick hot and rancid. with the fan switched off the funky heat rose to smother me. A foul aroma from the nearby toilet wafting up to choke and increase the unpleasantness. Sleep eluded me that night. Lindsey meanwhile was on the bottom bunk, near the window, and enjoyed the sleep of the just.

The following morning, as we looked for a hotel in Chengdu, she was the paragon of virtue and happiness, I was a miserable, grumpy sod!